History’s Distant Trumpet

I must say that I have been observing the activities of President Trump with a sense of deja vu or, as I have put it in the subject line, some notes of history’s distant trumpet.
 
 
There seem to have been a number of occasions within the various structures of what could be called participatory democracies or limited participatory democracies where there has been a content between the legislative and executive arms of government. I exclude the city states of Classical Greece and the activities of the various tyrants because of the disparity of constitutional arrangements but there are certain parallel between the decline of the Roman Republic and the crisis that faces the American Republic.
 
 
In the Roman example from about 146 BC – 13 BC there was an erosion of constitutional arrangements  where individuals such as Lucius Cornelius Sulla, Gnaeus Pompieus Magnus, Gaius Julius Caesar and Gaius Octavius Thurinus (later Gaius Octavius Caesar and finally Augustus) acting as they considered in the best interests or the Roman Republic, sought to cure the ills that beset it.
 
 
Of course there was a large amount of self interest involved, particularly on the part of Gaius Julius Caesar. Perhaps the only one of those who sought “to make Rome great again” who was acting for the benefit of the Republic was Sulla, but his methods left much to be desired. In addition he was aligned with the “optimates” – the conservative traditionalists of Rome – rather than one of the “populares”. But what happened was a gradual erosion of the participatory aspects of the Roman Constitution and the substitution of an arrogation of power by an individual. This, of course, reached its zenith with Augustus and the ultimate achievement of the Principate and in many respects Augustus was the smartest politician of them all because he maintained that he was not interested in the power that in fact he possessed.
 
 
But gradually over the period in question the democratic institutions and participatory methods of the Senate and the voting arrangements gave way to government by decree by small groups (the Triumviri) or individuals (in the case of Sulla and Gaius Julius Caesar as dictators).
 
 
The biggest difference between what happened to to Roman Republic and today’s US crisis is that all of the powerful individuals (and others such as Gaius Licinius Crassus, Gaius Marius, Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Longinius Cassius) managed to raise their own military forces to back them. Gaius Octavius acknowledges this in the first few lines of the res gestae – http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Augustus/Res_Gestae/1*.html
 
 
President Trump doesn’t have the power to raise his own private army and I would hope that if he attempted to use his powers as Commander in Chief to erode the Constitution he would receive a pushback. Even so, the power shift from the people to the President carries with it some of the notes of that distant trumpet. (For further reading see Catherine Steel “The End of the Roman Republic 146 – 44 BC” Ronald Syme “The Roman Revolution”, Tom Holland “Rubicon” and Carson McCullough’s novelisation of the period in her “Masters of Rome” series.
 
 
As a final thought have a look at a bust of Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus. Am I imagining a resemblance to President Trump?
 
 
One of the joys of a summer holiday in New Zealand is the opportunity to really dig into some serious reading. Although it had occurred to me before reading Diarmiad McCullough’s excellent biography of Thomas Cromwell, I was even more struck by the similarities of the governing styles of Henry VIII and President Trump. Like Trump, Henry was pretty merciless with those who displeased him and Cromwell – his arch fixer – was one of those victims. But what is interesting is the way that Henry governed during what Professor Geoffrey Elton called “The Tudor Revolution in Government” – a concept disputed by McCullough.
 
 
Henry was a prolific user of Proclamations as a means of getting things done. A review of the proclamations of his reign reveal rules and regulation addressing most aspects of day to day life in England. My especial interest in Proclamations focussed on those involving the printing press and the dissemination of ideas, but what is important is that although there may have been statutes that set out broad rule, proclamations were the day to day machinery by which those rules were put into effect. As the break with Rome proceeded and Henry began the land grab that ultimately ended with the dissolution of the monasteries (this is a gross simplification of a very complex series of activities) he insisted upon a legal basis for his actions validated by Parliament in the form of legislation.
 
 
Once the legislation was enacted, proclamations attended to the machinery side of the law. Indeed, any doubt about the legal validity of proclamations was dealt with by the Statute of Proclamations (I think it was 1536). Proclamations therefore allowed Henry to legislate by this means as well as with the help of Parliament.
 
 
If you have a look at the way Henry behaved – mercurial, unpredictable, impulsive, dictatorial – one can draw many parallels with the behaviour of Trump. I would not go so far as to say that proclamations were the sixteenth century equivalent of tweets. Perhaps their parallel is the Executive Order so beloved by this President and others before him. Furthermore, Henry and President Trump share an imposing physical presence although I doubt that Henry would favour the long tailed tie preferred by the President.
 
 
I recommend McCullough’s book on Cromwell. That said, it is not an easy afternoon read and is demanding and detailed. I have some familiarity with the events covered which made it a bit easier but that said I found myself reading a chapter at a time and taking an hour or so to digest what I had read. It provides an intellectual and academic backdrop to Hilary Mantell’s novels on Cromwell, the third of which, I understand, is on the way.
 
 
There are many other notes of history’s trumpet which I could advance. None of the parallels above or any others that there may be are on all fours with current events but many of the underlying themes are the same. The Stuarts tried to govern without Parliament and that ended badly for Charles I and to a lesser extent James II.
 
 
I suppose the overall lesson is that politics and democratic institutions are fragile things that carry within them the seeds of their own downfall. I hope that the present crisis in the US resolves itself in favour of the dream of the Framers. I often ask myself what Tom Jefferson or James Madison would think of things today and I imagine that there would be mutterings about the tree of liberty needing a bit of nourishment – need I say more?
 
 
I guess my biggest concern is that somewhere along the line the President may just step over the line and put the Constitution to one side either by completely ignoring Congress, governing by proclamation (Executive Order) or (heaven forbid) ignoring the wish of the people should they go against him in 2020. I don’t think it is impossible that he would ignore the will of the people and interpreting an electoral loss as a victory.
Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s